AI-aided investigative report shines light on political contributions made by developers from Mississauga to Pickering

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Published September 13, 2023 at 10:11 am

Photo courtesy of Planning Resource

An investigative report using AI by Queen’s Park watchdog The Trillium on political contributions made by developer ‘super donors’ to municipal candidates found 41 candidates in the 2022 election were gifted cheques of at least $1,000 for their campaign, including most of the GTA mayors.

Mississauga’s Bonnie Crombie accepted $37,200 and Patrick Brown’s campaign in Brampton took in $36,000 from developers and their associates, while Pickering’s Kevin Ashe ($22,600) and Whitby’s Elizabeth Roy ($20,200) also said yes to developer donations.

The Trillium used Google Pinpoint, an AI-based research tool, to sift through the campaign finance returns for every municipality in the GTA to find where the candidates were receiving their contributions and then created a database from those numbers.

Their research discovered that a group of 14 developers spread their money across a wide net, with each contributing to multiple candidates. Political affiliation or leaning played a role in ‘earning’ a contribution but the developers did not appear to discriminate.

Roy, when reached by insauga, confirmed both her contribution to the Trillium story and that her campaign in 2022 – and every political race she has been involved in since 1997 – has been above board and followed the very specific Ontario election finance regulations.

Whitby Mayor Elizabeth Roy

“Campaigning for municipal office is an expensive undertaking,” she said. “Many candidates are not in a position to donate the maximum $25,000 to their own campaign and running for office shouldn’t be limited to those with financial means.”

Roy, who added that her campaign finances are public and available to view online, said the cost of campaigning has been cited as one of the “barriers” preventing women and people of limited means from entering politics.

“We should be cautious that we don’t create a climate that further discourages people from participating,” she said. “It comes down to the person you elect to represent you. Do you trust them to make decisions in the best interest of your community? Whitby residents have put their trust in me time after time and I never take that for granted.”

Ashe also defended his developer contributions when his office was contacted, noting that the donations “do not create any undue influence on my actions or decisions as a public official.”

The campaign finance rules are clear, he added, and outline exactly how much can be donated to help with advertising, canvassing, public events and outreach.

Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe

Or, as Trillium writer Jessica Smith Cross noted in her story, campaign volunteers “shouldn’t have to caffeinate themselves.”

Ashe, who took in $32,350 in developer donations in the 2018 election – 93 per cent of his total donations – said he is “deeply committed” to upholding the integrity of the democratic process. “I fully endorse the existing legal framework, which safeguards against any undue influence from campaign donations.”

Ashe was also one of five Pickering councillors who voted against creating a lobbyist registrar during the previous term of office.

The top three contributors to Ashe’s campaign in 2018 were Chestnut Hill Developments (the naming rights holder of the city’s downtown recreation centre), The Triple Group (of Pickering Casino Resort and Durham Live fame) – each contributing $4,800 – and TACC ($2,500), which became the biggest benefactor by a long shot when the Greenbelt land swap happened four years later.

Those developers also figured prominently in the 2022 municipal election and they certainly didn’t discriminate, with contributions given to dozens of candidates in multiple jurisdictions.

Fieldgate Developments was the biggest benefactor for Whitby candidates last year, while Triple Group and TACC were the top donors in Pickering. In Oshawa it was George Lysyk & Sons, while TACC, Tribute Corporation and Municipal Solutions – the development services company owned by the now legendary ‘Mr. X’ (former Clarington Mayor John Mutton) was the busiest super donor in Clarington.

Other mayors in Durham taking developer contributions for their campaigns included Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier ($15,600), Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter ($13,600) and Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster ($10,300).

Durham Chair John Henry, who was interviewed for the Trillium report, accepted $21,200 but pointed out that his personal donation of $25,000 to his campaign – the maximum allowable – meant he was his own biggest contributor.

Henry also reached out to insauga to clarify his somments in the report, noting its takes “significant funds.”

“It is not always possible for public officials to take on the financial burden associated with campaign-related expenses,” he explained. “There are clear and strict regulations set out in Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act; regulations that I continue to follow with the utmost transparency.”

Local councillors also benefited from the donations – Brian Nicholson of Oshawa accepted $11,700 and Maurice Brenner of Pickering $5,450, for example – while Peel Region councillor Michael Palleschi was the biggest recipient of developer donations of them all at just under $40,000.

Tribute Communities Chief Financial Officer Gus Stavropoulos told the Trillium that contributing to political campaigns has been a long-standing tradition and said as long as it is done legally there should be no issues.

“We work together with these people — for sure there’s a relationship,” he said. “We have to work with them in order to achieve what we’re trying to do. We can’t do it alone, and they can’t do it alone. They want to see a vibrant community built the right way, and we want to do the same.”

Notably, the mayors of Caledon, Newmarket, Burlington and Oakville and the elected Halton Region Chair received little-to-no donations from developers.

Photo Hornsby Shire Council

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